Boys on the Verge of Tears: blood, sweat and regret in a men’s public loo

Boys on the Verge of Tears, at the Soho Theatre
Boys on the Verge of Tears, at the Soho Theatre - Marc Brenner

Not since the explosive mid-1990s has there been such a surge in testosterone-fuelled theatrical activity. Hot on the heels of the award-winning Dear England, Red Pitch and For Black Boys... comes another work whose gaze is on the male. Sam Grabiner’s Boys on the Verge of Tears, a debut set in a men’s public lavatory, won the prestigious Verity Bargate Award in 2022, chosen by judges from some 1,500 submissions.

The fact that the director of this Soho theatre production is James Macdonald, who presided over the Royal Court’s biggest mid-90s shocker, Sarah Kane’s Blasted, raises expectations that sooner or later something will come violently crashing through the door (indeed it does).

That said, the piece has more immediately in common with a wordless Peter Handke play, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, which Macdonald directed at the National and which saw a company of actors play hordes of people walking through an urban square. The accent here, though, is on the verbal as we watch sundry clusters and age-ranges of blokes pass through the bogs, whose shifting setting becomes apparent as the characters (more than 40, played by five actors) declare themselves in piss-taking banter, bravado and the sorrow to which (manly) flesh is heir.

In theory, the Gents is the back-stage area of performative masculinity, where chaps let their guard, as well as their flies, down. The reality is usually so repellent and repressed, though, that dialogue is minimal, beyond grunts of acknowledgement. Poetic licence is allowed, although the opening scene, in which a father waits while his smart-aleck young son tries to go about his business in a cubicle, stretches credulity as well as patience.

The script veers thereafter into irksome ‘’ickle boy’ pretence as Maanuv Thiara and Calvin Demba, both bearded, portray two nippers striking up a rapport, one mischief-making, the other wide-eyed in a tiger-costume. But things flow more easily, so to speak, as we get past the first flush of childhood and into the enjoyably excruciating terrain of pre-school disco chatter, then a vaguely illicit gathering involving rape jokes, failed jokes and a star turn from Matthew Beard. He’s the height of gangly insecurity, possessed by a disturbing leer as his character absently, almost reverently recalls a drunken date that evidently passed beyond any notion of consent.

Calvin Demba in Boys on the Verge of Tears, at the Soho Theatre
Calvin Demba in Boys on the Verge of Tears, at the Soho Theatre - Marc Brenner

It gets darker in terms of time, and toxicity, as first vandals, then clubbers pile in. The working basin area becomes spattered with blood and drugs as a brutalised geezer (Demba again, superb) is gently tended to by a kind stranger professing to be a nurse (David Carlyle), confides a lost chance of self-expression to two bemused drag queens and is finally grimly cornered.

Tempting though it might be to exit during a painstaking cleaning operation of meditative length, the coda, involving soul-baring and bodily explicitness from Tom Espiner as a dying step-father, who’s contending with a colostomy bag and piles of regret, is a climatic affirmation of writerly promise and confirms why those judges went so potty for this.

Until May 18. Tickets: 020 7478 0100;

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